Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Moral Principles & Moral Courage
March 2, 2012
By Paul Brink
This article originally appeared as part of the Alternative Political Conversation Project, hosted by Harold Heie and cosponsored by the Center for Public Justice. For additional perspectives on the budget debate or to join the conversation, go to www.respectfulconversation.net.
In following the national budget debate, I have been struck by the ways that the arguments are framed morally. Today, it has become commonplace to declare that the budget is a “moral” document, that as a statement of the nation’s economic priorities, it makes decisions that are moral by their very nature, both in themselves and in their consequences.
This declaration is, of course, absolutely true. In fact, it is so true that the reminder is almost unhelpful, and, in fact, debate participants make moral claims all the time concerning budget priorities. The question then is not whether moral principles, but which moral principles.
I see at least two great sets of moral claims at play. One set is based upon economic stewardship. The United States today is living beyond its means and has been doing so for some time. While extending costs over time may be appropriate and even advisable when benefits likewise extend over time, passing costs to future generations for benefits enjoyed only today goes against any stable norm of stewardship. And when certain national priorities threaten to grow beyond the government’s ability to sustain them—I have in mind entitlement programs—stewardship demands that we consider how to pursue these priorities responsibly.
A second set of moral arguments emphasizes justice. While we have an obligation to consider our stewardship responsibilities for the sake of future generations, it is equally important to carry out our responsibilities to our neighbors today. The cost of efforts to reduce deficits may not be borne by the most vulnerable members of society. Programs designed to meet these goals may need to be rebuilt from time to time, but the foundational requirements of justice with regard to the poor do not change.
I find it helpful to consider the moral framing of the debate in this way because, first of all, it encourages us to consider our motivations in the debate—and equally important, the motivations of others. Often, opponents in the political budget fight are caricatured as uncaring and selfish (on the one side) or stupid and selfish (on the other). Recognizing that our opponents’ positions may be morally grounded is valuable, even if we reject the policy prescriptions that flow from them. It may not be necessary to find that our opponents are uncaring, stupid or selfish; it could be that they are merely wrong.
But does the recognition of the varied moral positions at stake help us as we stumble toward policy? I think it may because they enable a place from which alternate political conversations become possible. We may discover, uncomfortably perhaps, that our moral principles cut both ways in terms of policy. The moral principle of stewardship, for example, applies not only to our finances. Surely, a wise steward will not pay for yesterday’s fiscal deficits by passing social or environmental deficits to tomorrow. It’s hard for me to see how tax increases on the wealthiest can or should be avoided in pursuit of these ends.
The moral claims of justice also cut both ways. While justice requires effectively caring for the vulnerable, justice is also implicated in our obligations to future generations, and that will require us to take a hard look at unsustainable spending patterns in particular areas, including military spending. But the far more significant and difficult challenge will be the rebuilding of entitlement programs. And for that reconstruction project, justice itself will require that all options remain on the table.
What becomes clear is that neither justice nor stewardship can be considered alone, and they certainly need not be opposed to each other. Fortunately, the interplay of these two principles may result in more policy options than we perhaps had expected. These are moral decisions –difficult decisions – but they remain decisions.
And here we arrive at what is perhaps most challenging. To make moral decisions, we must be morally courageous. In politics, that requires refusing easy answers (“Tax the rich!” or, “Cuts across the board!”) along with a willingness to assume some of the costs that come with being morally principled. Both of the tempting options—“more of the same” and “less of the same”—must be rejected. Now is the time for public policy makers to be as courageous as they are principled.
—Paul Brink is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”